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Friday, August 12, 2011

Halfway Home Part 2

In Part 1 of this FC Tokyo mid-season review, I wrote about the injuries that contributed to our slow start and the players who have taken their chances due to the enforced absences of Sota Hirayama, Takuji Yonemoto, and to a lesser extent, Naohiro Ishikawa, who have made a combined two starts between them in the first half of the season.

Here in Part 2 I'll go through the season month-by-month (with links to On the Gas Match Reports), and reveal the players of the season so far according to Tokyo Bairn and myself, amongst other things, starting with....

Just the one league game obviously, and we began the season the same way we did in 2010, with a 1-0 win at home. Tosu were the opponents, and the performance was fairly plodding, but new boy Tatsuya Yazawa settled things in our favour with a bundled effort following up after Hirayama had barrelled into their 'keeper.

The next Friday disaster struck Japan, and the J.League went into recess for six weeks, during which time Hirayama and backup holding midfielder Roberto suffered long-term injuries.

The league resumed for us on Sunday, August 24th, with the much-anticipated clash away to fellow promotion favourites Chiba, but it turned into a horror show for us as we were picked-off three times. The final 3-0 scoreline wasn't really a fair indication of how the game went, but they took their chances while we couldn't hit the side of a wool shed.

More important than the result though was the season-ending (most likely) knee injury to Takuji Yonemoto, an absolute tragedy for our brilliant all-energy holding midfielder.

The next Saturday we returned to Aji Sta, but were frustrated in a 0-0 draw by a Sapporo side who followed the blueprint to perfection. Former Gasmen 'striker' Yusuke Kondo was arguably the man of the match, which left everyone in the stands stunned.

FC Tokyo's Top Scorers So Far
  • Roberto Cesar - 6
  • Sotan Tanabe, Yohei Kajiyama - 4
  • Masato Morishige, Yuhei Tokunaga, Tatsuya Yazawa - 3

We'd only scored once in the first three games, but surely, we thought, we'd give The Spews a caning in the first Tokyo Derby since 2008. I even predicted it before the game, later seen on the Tokyo Damacy Show, when Jonathan Sieger came over, dragging his knuckles on the floor.

Unfortunately I was five goals off in my prediction, and we had to settle for another 0-0 draw after a see-sawing game that saw them have the better of things, driven on by the best player on the pitch Hiroki Kawano, before Roberto Cesar's sending-off for a second yellow card seemed to light a fire under us in the last half hour. Despite being down to 10 men we should've taken all three points after a series of late near-misses, and the Tokyo end voiced its disapproval at the full time whistle, which surprised Tokyo Bairn and I, as we gave the players a standing ovation.

The rest of the month saw frustration grow in the stands as performances continued to be very much hit and miss. A quality finish from a tired and emotional Naotake Hanyu earnt us a 1-0 win in the next game against Toyama, but then we were woeful on our first ever visit to Kusatsu, losing 2-1, the low point of the season so far for me. Then Shonan fought back in the second half to hold us 1-1, with the highlight for us being The Salad's first goal for the club. We weren't to realise it at the time, but the Shonan game was the beginning of an 11-game unbeaten run, the second-best in the club's J.League history.

We'd seemed to sleepwalk through the first seven games, and were mired down in 12th, but finally, in the last game in May, we put together a performance that justified our promotion favourites tag, and it was extra sweet that it came in Kyoto, scene of our club's darkest day. Sanga were comprehensively battered, 4-1, with Sotan Tanabe bagging a brace on just his second start of the season, while this game was also notable as it marked the start of Hideto Takahashi's currently unbroken run of games in the defensive midfield role.

As good as we were in Kyoto, we were back to our wasteful, ineffective ways at Komazawa in the first game in June, as a first half lead, courtesy of a brilliant volley from Tanabe, was again pissed away in a 1-1 draw with Ehime FC. Ishikawa returned for this game, but there wasn't much else to feel good about.

Ninth after nine games, something needed to click, we needed to go on a run to get up the table, and the boys thankfully delivered a five game winning streak, starting with a 1-0 win on a wet evening in Kumamoto, with The Salad kung-fu'ing home the winner. Tokushima were dominated at Aji Sta in our best home performance to date, but we still only emerged with another 1-0 victory.

We finally made it into the promotion places after Matchday 12's 3-2 win at Mito, which saw Masato Morishige and Ishikawa notch their first goals of the season, and then we finished off the month against  Okayama, who were comfortably handled 2-0 away with Morishige scoring again, and Takahashi netting the other, his first goal for the club.

We'd had our best month of the season, and things only got better with the news that Lucas was returning from his short-lived retirement.

Club Records Broken or Matched in 2011
  • Broken: Biggest Home League Win: 5-0 v Kumamoto, Matchday 17
  • Matched: Consecutive League Clean Sheets: 5 - Matchdays 13 - 17

This month started on a huge high with a 3-0 win over Tottori, but as good as that result was, the show was well and truly stolen by two returning heroes, Yuto Nagatomo and Lucas. Both were presented to the fans before the game, with Naga banging out some sha-sha-shas from the main stand balcony and Lucas speaking about his return, while unveiling his new number, 49.

The next weekend we had a bit of a reality check, and slipped down to fourth after a frustrating one-of-those-days 0-0 draw away at Oita, but then the good times were back in the capital with two big wins in consecutive home games that saw us rise to the top of the table for the first time all season.

Bottom club FC Gifu were outclassed in a 4-0 romp that saw The Salad bag a brace and Lucas make his first appearance in his second stint at the club, and then we made history at Kokuritsu with the biggest home win in our J.League history, a 5-0 demolition of fellow promotion chasers Kumamoto, with Lucas providing the icing on the cake with his first goal since his return.

With the chance to equal the club record (in-season) for consecutive games unbeaten (12, set in 2005), we finished the month down at upstarts Kitakyushu, who had done a frankly miraculous job to sit in fifth after a horror debut season in which they won only once. And it took an almost miraculous strike from Tomoki Ikemoto to win it for the hosts, as we left Kyushu frustrated again in a 1-0 loss that saw us slip back to second.

But Kitakyushu weren't finished pulling off shocks, after knocking us off the top they then repeated the feat on the first Friday night of the month by winning away at Tokushima, who had moved to the summit after our loss. That result meant we had the chance to go back into first at the halfway mark with a win away at Gifu, and while we weren't as clinical as in our huge win against them three weeks previously, with The Salad having a penalty saved, we cruised to a 2-0 win thanks to fine strikes from Tokunaga and Yazawa.

And there we are. There have been some difficult times, especially in the first six or seven matchdays, but in our long unbeaten run we began to show our true colours and put together a string of quality performances. We're up to date, halfway through the season we sit at the top of J2, but with no breathing room whatsoever:

J2 Top Five Pts, GD (Chiba have a game in hand):
  1. FC Tokyo 38, +19
  2. Tokushima 37, +13
  3. Tochigi SC 37, +13
  4. Chiba 35, +12
  5. Kitakyushu 33, 0
Looking ahead, after we host Kusatsu tomorrow we then face Tochigi twice in three games, first away and then 'home' at Kumagaya (god that still winds me up), and other potentially vital games come in Matchdays 27 & 28 in late September and early October, when we host Kitakyushu (let's see if they'll be able to stick in the top five) and then visit Tokushima.

All thats left to do then is give you the On the Gas Players of the Season so far:
Tokyo Bairn1. Yasuyuki Konno 2. Hideto Takahashi 3. Sotan Tanabe, honourable mention: Roberto Cesar
Ben: 1. Yasuyuki Konno 2. Roberto Cesar 3. Hideto Takahashi, honourable mention: Masato Morishige

Up the Gas!

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